How to Research A Novel or Memoir: A Soul Journey to Latvia

by Alissa Lukara

Alissa at the Latvian Song Festival in front of 15,000 person choir

Alissa at the Latvian Song Festival in front of 15,000 person choir

Plenty of authors have written successful, inspired novels without visiting the places they wrote about to do the research for their books, because they preferred to allow imagination and research done locally to infuse their books — or because they could not afford the travel. But I am grateful, thanks to a trip I won from vacation packager Go-Today, that I had the opportunity to travel to Latvia, the key setting for my novel-in-progress, entitled Secrets of the Trees. That trip allowed me to experience and do research in the country from a writer’s perspective.

Here are four main ways I did research for my novel while visiting Latvia. That my own ancestry is Latvian and that I speak, read and write Latvian definitely helped:

Libraries. My novel is set in the summer of 1993, three years after Latvia’s declaration of Independence from the former U.S.S.R. The backdrop is that year’s Latvian Song and Dance Festival in Riga, a massive cultural event that includes a choir of 13-15000 singers, 15000 dancers and 10,000 members of a wind orchestra. The festival, held every five years, is on the UNESCO list of Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.

I wanted to do research on that specific year and event, so I got temporary library cards to work in the main library in Riga and the National Library of Latvia. The card gave me access to read and photocopy books, newspapers and magazines about the year 1993, the history of the song festival and opinion pieces of the times. I looked at images of the city and its people then.

One surprise: I found a fun little book written in English about the song festival. It explored aspects of it like the energetic impact of song on a person’s wellbeing and talked about how even if you were a young “punk,” dressing up in traditional folk costume to participate in the festival was still considered “cool.”

What added to the experience was the locale of the National Library itself – climbing the wide marble stairs with thick wood railings of the periodicals building, using the old reading room with its heavy wood and glass door, the musty smells of the archives, listening to the sounds of folk music coming from free live performances throughout the day at the nearby Dome Plaza.

DSCF0032

Riga, Latvia

Bookstores. I perused the Valters un Rapa bookstore, Latvia’s largest, for books on Latvia’s history in 1993, dance and dancers in Latvia (One of my two main characters and her Latvian birth father are both dancers). However, most of the books I found were too heavy in weight and subject matter to lug overseas and did not cover 1993 specifically.

I was about to give up on finding any books I could read to add depth to the novel, when I gave the history shelf one last scan. One small book (less than one pound) popped out from a lower shelf called 1993: Facts and Feelings. It was the only book on the shelves about a specific year in Latvian history. And I got the only copy available there. I love those signs from the universe.

This July also happened to be the year the 25th Song and 15th Dance Festival was held, many events of which I attended. The day after my visit to the bookstore, we had tickets to the dress rehearsal of the main song concert event. During a break, I visited some booths, one of which was selling books that seemed unusual to have at a song festival event. They were on gardening, plants and cooking. My companion, a friend of my mother’s, drew my attention to another book of historic items she thought might be helpful to my novel. I then purchased calendars of Latvian power symbols with their meanings and one with images and a history of the Song and Dance Festivals, thinking both might prove useful to the novel.

Studying the remaining books more closely, I couldn’t believe it. There stood a beautiful four-color book about the 100 greatest and most sacred trees in Latvia, with photos and writings about each one. With the title of my novel being Secrets of the Trees, the Latvian forest, its symbolism, spiritual elements, and the part it plays in Latvia’s history, play a key aspect of the novel.

More serendipity. I never even thought to look for such a book at the bookstore or library, let alone a choir concert.

At another booth, I bought a CD of music from past song festivals, including 1993.

The Swedish Gate in Riga

The Swedish Gate in Riga

Interviews. I had visited Latvia twice before, both life-changing trips with my mother, once during the song festival in 2003. During those trips, I met everyone from one of the leading choir directors in Latvia to the head of the most famous drone singing group in Latvia to some 20 family members I had never met before. My mother had not only maintained connections with family there since the 80s when she started to travel there, but she had made numerous contacts/friends involved in music, the arts and folklore of Latvia and more.

On this visit, we deepened and renewed those connections, including staying at several family members homes in towns outside Riga, and we made new ones. A Latvian friend from Oregon traveled with us, so I got to experience Latvia through her perceptions as well.

I have plans to interview several family members and other Latvians I met about what they underwent in their first years of freedom, the importance of song and dance in their lives, their connection to nature, folklore and more. We also connected with people who grew up in the U.S., but have chosen to move to Latvia, the home of their ancestors.

But even without these direct Latvian connections, traveling to Latvia with my mother is already like having a personal guide. She has great knowledge of the history and traditions gained from years of study and travel there. I have already interviewed my mother about family history – she and her parents escaped from Latvia in 1944 during WWII, when she was 13 – but more emerged during this trip.

Now that we’ve returned, I will also be exploring more about the changes my mother has witnessed traveling to Latvia regularly since the 80’s, while Latvia was still under Soviet rule, and afterwards.

More surprises: One of the biggest surprises on this trip came in my discovery that there had been at least two sets of twins in my family. I had never known there were any twins in our family.

My main characters are fraternal twins, one a dancer and the other her brother/manager, who ends up in a coma at one point in the novel. The twins journey to Latvia in search of their Latvian birth father and the key to unravel the secrets and ancestral and cultural patterns that have unconsciously directed their lives. I made the decision to make them twins before I ever knew about the family connection.

While in Latvia, I discovered that one of my great grandmothers (all my known relatives are Latvian) not only had twin brothers, but had also born twins herself. Those twins both died of an illness as young children.

Sensory details, including food, place, weather. Nothing beats visiting the place you want to write about to capture bits and pieces of sensory detail. I gained so much by:

  • walking the cobblestone streets of the old town in Riga (watching the young women navigate the uneven surfaces in heels!) and other towns and cities;
  • viewing the various toned stone, brick and wood buildings, refurbished and not, from as much as 800 years ago, where so much history took place, including the Jugenstil art deco buildings in Riga;
  • eating and savoring Latvian cuisine, the aroma of the smoked fish, sausage, fresh rye bread, pancakes, finely cut salads and dill;
  • drinking the rich beer, strawberry juice, birch water and strong coffees and teas;
  • wearing the amber and silver jewelry etched with Latvian symbols so common in Latvia (where much amber is found)
  • listening to music, to the Latvian songs reverberating from all the open plazas, the buzz of people’s voices from all over the world there to participate and celebrate at the festival;
  • watching and interacting with people whose faces I recognize as Latvian from their high cheek bones, angular faces and strong Latvian characteristics;
  • visiting Latvians and family members in their homes throughout the country, admiring their gardens;
  • witnessing the variety of traditional Latvian dress that both the women and men festival participants wore, including the various head coverings from crowns to flower and oak leaf garlands;

    Latvian Song Festival Parade

  • experiencing the emotion, the tears, the feeling of oneness and connection, the gratitude while attending the Latvian song festival events – the choir and dance and orchestral events. These events reminded us all of the spirit of song, music, dance that infused Latvians with strength and courage and hope during the Soviet rule and continues to nourish their hearts and souls today;
  • driving the narrow, not well-maintained roads through the birch and pine forests and lush green farmlands, walking on the fine sand beaches of the Bay of Riga and the Baltic Sea. Nature is woven into so much of life, art and music in Latvia.

Witnessing those details, noting bits and pieces of what captured my attention in a journal and on video, brought another layer of texture, mood, and inspiration to integrate into my novel.

Wherever your creative journeys take you, whether you physically travel to the locales you write about or travel there in your imagination, may they also be filled with the inspired insights of the heart and soul.

Now it’s your turn. I love to hear from you. What experiences have you had traveling to locales to do research on your book (or choosing not to)? Please share your comments here.

Alissa Lukara is as passionate about supporting you to write and share your stories as she is to write her own. Want support to begin — and complete — your memoir or autobiographical novel? Dive in and register here for Alissa Lukara’s online memoir writing course, Write for Real: Writing Memoirs to Heal, Inspire and Transform. Or dip in a toe and register here today for the free eCourse Alissa offers, Write a Book — Transform Lives: 7 Key Stages on the Writer’s Journey. Alissa Lukara, the author of the poetic memoir, Riding Grace: A Triumph of the Soul, supports you to write, publish and market your memoir, novel or creative nonfiction book through online writing workshops and retreats, writing coaching, developmental editing and speaking.

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13 Responses to How to Research A Novel or Memoir: A Soul Journey to Latvia

  1. Jonah says:

    Now that’s research Alissa.. You really went for it.
    You didn’t just go for an intellectual exploration..You really immersed yourself in the sensuous sights, sounds, tastes, smells and gestalt of the entire experience.
    Your book will be all the better for it. Your characters will come to life in a rich textured environment that will so enhance everything. I,for one, can’t wait to read your novel.
    Best
    Jonah

    • Alissa Lukara says:

      Thanks Jonah. I look forward to completing it so you can read it! I loved that journey of immersion. Now on to weaving it into the story.

  2. Lori says:

    You have taken serendipity to a new level. You went with an open heart and the universe filled it. I loved reading your beautifully written piece about your research and can’t wait to read it in novel form.
    Lori

    • Alissa Lukara says:

      Thanks Lori. I’m touched by your comment and the insight.

  3. Janet says:

    The trees and their symbolism are very intriguing–sounds like a very rich travel experience as well as inspiration and depth for your novel.
    Janet

    • Alissa Lukara says:

      Thanks for your comment, Janet. Yes on all counts.

  4. Ilze Klavins says:

    The Barricades in Rīga, January 1991, is an event that touched everybody in Latvija, and became a defining moment for the fight for freedom. Everybody either manned the barricades (guarded them) or worked in soup kitchens that provided food, or kept knitting warm socks and mittens for those out in the bitter weather, standing guard. Much like every adult in the US can say where the were when 9/11 happened, so the Latvians of that era are very specific about how they participated in “The Barricades”. You might want to include some of that in your book!
    (http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Barricades)

    • Alissa Lukara says:

      Thanks for the suggestion Ilze. Paldies! I love these extra details, too. Yes, I definitely want to do that. My initial plan was that one of the main secondary characters participated in a major way. But I like the idea of having it be even more central in that way. As a defining moment. And to use that moment as a focus for conversations/interiews about that time. Alissa

    • Alissa Lukara says:

      By the way, do you know anyone that would be especially good to talk to about it? I’d love to make the connection. You can email me directly through this site via contact or “email: write (at) transformationalwriters.com”

  5. Brigita Stroda says:

    Riga looks much like any other thriving European metropolis. I grew up in Australia and arrived to live in Latvia in 1993. Then it looked very different. If there are significant plot details that depend on some authentic element or ephemera, I am happy to help, especially with regard to shops, hotels, cafes, For example, arriving to live in Riga, I noticed a disconcerting difference but couldn’t quite put my finger on it until I realised – the windows were clean ! A particular aspect of the general pervading nastiness of Soviet life was that all the windows, especially public transport and public buildings were grimy. Another was the lack of ventilation in cafe and cafeteria kitchens. If the song festival features, I currently work there. All the best!

    • Alissa Lukara says:

      Thanks so much, Brigita. I appreciate your response and your offer. Yes, Riga is beautiful, and I would love your input. I was specifically needing help in how Riga and Latvia looked in 1993. So much has been renovated, even since my first visit in 2003. I love the details about the windows/ventilation/buildings. Yes, the song festival features prominently and several plot details. I find the the authentic details and feelings of the time actually inspire and deepen the plot. I’ll email you directly and we can set something up.

  6. Marta Mannenbach says:

    Congratulations with all the great work! It’s really great you write about the Song Festival. I only hope the book will turn out a very good one, with a deep meaning and based on true facts and authentic sources.
    I really don’t understand though where does that myth of Latvians having high cheek bones and angular faces come from??? I’ve heard it only twice and both times from someone in US. I mean, some French and British have high or clearly visible cheek bones too. There are no specific Latvian characteristics – no one can tell who’s a Latvian on the street only by looking at them. By today Latvians have been sooo mixed that it is ridiculous to say one knows how a typical looks like (I would dare to guess blonde with blue eyes but that’s it). Anthropologically, Latvians (if we dig back in ancient history, Bronze Age and before) are mostly related to Estonians and Finns and their characteristics. Then again zemgalieši (Semigallians) and Latgallians have a different facial type according to anthropologists. I wish someone would make a thorough research on this topic so silly, groundless myths aren’t spread around.

    • Alissa Lukara says:

      Thanks for your comments and insights, Marta. And your encouragement for the book. It’s a true soul calling and journey to write it. My goal is definitely to bring out deep meaning through the novel form and it’s definitely through my particular filter as a writer with Latvian ancestry raised in the U.S. I am drawing on factual occurrences and authentic sources where I can and on lots of symbolism, nature, folklore and the power of song and dance. Characteristic-wise, you bring up some interesting considerations. Not all Latvians look “the same” for sure. However, I was recently talking to my writer’s group about our cultural heritages, and one profound piece of traveling back to Latvia the first time for me was not so much that there was one “typical” Latvian look, but there was a familiarity to some of the faces that I do not feel walking the streets in the melting pot of the US. And that was one of the moving parts of being there. Not that people were not distinct or unique. They are. But that other piece was there, too. One of the other writers had had a similar experience traveling to Czechoslovakia. Thanks again for all your thoughtfulness on the subject.

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